Punishing Gays under Islam

Originally appeared Oct. 21, 2001, in the Chicago Free Press.

BARELY TWO WEEKS before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the New York Post and Court TV both ran items about the Afghanistan Taliban regime's punishment of two men convicted of homosexuality.

According to those stories, the Taliban's Islamic jurists knew that homosexuality was reprehensible and the sentence should be execution, but they were genuinely puzzled by conflicting Islamic opinion on exactly how the execution should be carried out.

"We have a dilemma on this," one Taliban leader explained. "One group of scholars believes you should take these people to the top of the highest building in the city, and hurl them to their deaths. (The other) believes in a different approach. They recommend you dig a pit near a wall somewhere, put these people in it, then topple the wall so that they are buried alive."

No one thought to point out that these approaches are atavistic survivals of options presented during the earliest days of Islam in the mid-7th century.

The idea of stoning derived from the Qur'an's account of Sodom's destruction by a "rain of stones," apparently Muhammad's misunderstanding of the Hebrew legend's "fire and brimstone" (sulfur), and from a supposed hadith ("saying") of Muhammad urging stoning of both partners found engaging in homosexual sex.

Muhammad's successor, his father-in-law Abu Bakr (reigned 632-34), reportedly had a homosexual burned at the stake. The fourth caliph, Muhammad's son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib (reigned 656-61) ordered a sodomite thrown from the minaret of a mosque. Others he ordered to be stoned.

One of the earliest and most authoritative commentators on the Qur'an, Ibn 'Abbas (died 687) stipulated a two-step execution in which "the sodomite should be thrown from the highest building in the town and then stoned." Later it was decided that if no building were tall enough, the sodomite could be shoved off a cliff.

Subsequent commentators on the Qur'an denounced homosexuality in what ethnologist Jim Wafer calls "extravagant" terms: "Whenever a male mounts another male the throne of God trembles; the angels look on in loathing and say, 'Lord, why do you not command the earth to punish them and the heavens to rain stones on them.'"

These early doctrines and practices were codified by the influential Hanbalite school of law, the most conservative school of Islamic jurisprudence, named after the theologian Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780-855).

Ibn Hanbal argued that human reasoning was not a reliable guide to truth and that the Qur'an and the habitual behavior of Muhammad, literally understood, offered sufficient guidance for later practice. As a result, Hanbalites uniformly urged execution, usually by stoning.

There were, to be sure, other schools of jurisprudence. The Hanafites, named for Abu Hanifa (699-767), put greater emphasis on individual reasoning and local circumstances. It taught that homosexuality was wrong but did not merit physical punishment because another supposed hadith of Muhammad said Muslim blood should be spilled only for adultery, apostasy, or murder.

But some ambiguity remained. For a married man, homosexuality could be interpreted as adultery -- i.e., sex outside of marriage -- so an individual judge might choose to impose a penalty anyway.

Other schools of jurisprudence urged public whipping, usually 100 lashes, so that the pain of the sodomite might serve as an exemplary warning to others.

Reports of these punishments being carried out in early times are not abundant. Some historians think this means Islamic culture was more tolerant in practice than in principle. But more likely most court records have simply not survived, so we have no information.

What may have protected some homosexuals, though, was the insistence by most Islamic jurists that conviction for homosexuality required witnesses, sometimes as many as four. That meant that homosexuality conducted discreetly and in private might survive unpunished.

What does all this history have to do with us?

Just this. The strict Hanbalite school of jurisprudence remains powerful to this day, and is dominant in Saudi Arabia and Syria. The distinguished Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr describes the current Hanbalite school as:

"The most strict in its adherence to the Qur'an and the Sunnah (the original practices) and does not rely as do the other schools of law upon the other principles" -- such as the consensus of the learned, the welfare of the community, modern scientific knowledge, or individual human reasoning -- "and, in fact, rejects them."

In addition, the official Saudi Arabian state religion is a puritanical branch of Islam called "Wahhabism," named for the fundamentalist religious leader named Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab (1703-92), who urged an anti-modern, 'restorationist" or "back to the Qur'an" puritanism fully consistent with the Hanbalite school.

It is hardly necessary to remind anyone that Osama bin Laden is a Saudi Arabian who grew up in the state-supported fundamentalist Wahhabi religion; nor that the Saudi government and royal family have channeled hundreds of millions of dollars to fundamentalist Islamic groups worldwide including, according to the New York Times (Oct. 20, 2001), hundreds of millions of dollars to promote their particularly homophobic version of Islam among U.S. Muslims.

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